Part 24: Musings on the future of independent film distribution

Since the release of The Sensation of Sight in the summer of 2008, the independent film industry has been pretty much turned on its head.

And this is especially true regarding distribution. It comes as no surprise to anyone who has been following the independent film business that the last couple of years have seen a long-awaited and much-anticipated disintegration of the old distribution model and the beginnings of a new era in terms of how filmmakers are finding access to the global marketplace.

As I sit here writing this post, I find myself thinking back to when we first launched Either/Or Films five years ago and how different the landscape was then. It’s pretty amazing all that’s happened since. Putting together a distribution strategy when we were raising financing for Sensation, our first feature film, was a no-brainer: try to get into the best festivals, wait for a favorable distribution deal to materialize, sign an all-rights deal, and then watch from the sidelines as our distributor marketed and released the film on all platforms.

What was missing back then, of course, was social media and what’s happened with the ever-expanding role of the Internet and the ability of filmmakers to even think about marketing to their global audience directly. Sure, we had email lists and Constant Contact or Vertical Response and the like, but few other tools at our disposal that could allow us to actually take the reins of widespread marketing/distribution into our own hands.

Today, of course (a mere five years later), all that has changed. We’re at the front end of a very exciting time for independent filmmakers. Digital photography and editing is now within reach of just about everyone. But the real game-changer is what’s happening in distribution and the potential power now available to us to market our own projects worldwide. Let’s face it, we’re all entrepreneurs (or should be!) and when all of a sudden it’s possible for us to take charge of finding our audiences and building our fan bases ourselves—and then market directly to them—we’re looking at a whole new playing field.

This is not to say that traditional distribution is dead or that it will totally disappear in the near future, but it’s clear that we’ve arrived at a crossroads and those of us who are looking for the best shot at recouping our production costs, entering profitability with our projects, and creating some sense of sustainability in this filmmaking madness we can’t seem to shake from our systems–we’re already heading down this new road.

It’s definitely happening and even the Hollywood studios are getting nervous about it and wondering how they too can sink their mammoth teeth into the new distribution models. And when that starts to happen, you know we’re heading in the right direction.

If you haven’t run across him yet, one of the people who is a real trailblazer in this regard and who is out there in the trenches putting his experience and amazing energy to work for us is Jon Reiss. His new book “Think Outside the Box Office: The Ultimate Guide to Film Distribution and Marketing for the Digital Age” is currently the road map to become familiar with as you ponder your next journey down distribution road. He even has an on-line version at a great price that includes periodic updates in an arena that is literally evolving weekly. Jon’s book gives a thorough glimpse of where things are heading, and he’s certainly getting us thinking about our own marketing/distribution strategy for our next film Someplace Like America.

All this to say that the future of independent filmmaking–regardless of what we’ve been hearing for months now–is far from dead. What’s transpiring, I believe, is the beginning of a new golden age for filmmakers when the word “independent” or “indie” attached to who we are as artists and producers will be as obsolete and irrelevant as the word “motor” is to “car.”

For more on this, check out Tyler Weaver’s blog post with some interesting comments from David Paul Baker.

(Next: More musings on the state of the industry)

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15 comments »

  1. Tyler Weaver said,
    February 20, 2010 @ 7:38 pm

    Buzz –

    Many thanks for the mention of my “Indie? Studio? Screw It. Entertain” article. The paragraph prior perfectly summed up what I’m feeling about the whole thing, and now I’m kicking myself for not having written…

    “…the beginning of a new golden age for filmmakers when the word ‘independent’ or ‘indie’ attached to who we are as artists and producers will be as obsolete and irrelevant as the word ‘motor’ is to ‘car.’”

    Sums up exactly my thoughts – kudos on a great article, and again, thanks for the mention!

    Tyler

  2. John w. Bosley said,
    February 20, 2010 @ 10:24 pm

    Great post and you’re thinking what I’ve been thinking for a decade in idealistic terms (meaning idealistically I saw this but like many I couldn’t see the ‘how to’ part). I don’t like the word “indie” it’s not that it means anything wrong, it’s the conatations we add to it. Independent just means to be seperate from something. But the connatation is either that your lean one way or another politically or morally. Or that you made a “small personal film” or an assortment of other misconceptions. What happened to: I have this great story to tell and I want to make it into a film?

    I had thought about a decade ago of the notion that a filmmaker’s LLC could actually be a mini-studio. You could be the production company, distributor and marketing all in one. No you would be the Weinstein Company or Miramax or any other mini-major. No you’d just be someone who makes their film and gets it to their audience. You don’t have to make multi-millions to be sucessful. From a financial point-of-view you just need to make back what it cost plus some. And in a recession “plus some” means a lot.

  3. david baker said,
    February 21, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    RE: TYLER WEAVERS BLOG POST

    Thanks for the kind mention

    Like I always say, I might be talking nonsense but its my nonsense! haha :0)

    Theres a lot of downsides to the new changes but I only see the upsides. I really beleive in personally finding and cultivating our own fans. Helping each other as filmmakers with case studies etc of course, like you are brilliantly doing here, but I am starting to see middle men emerging on the web.

    People are searching for a new identify, wave, groups, because REALLY doing it on your own I think is too scary for a lot of filmmakers. We had that way before and it does not work, but I think too many filmmakers still dont take this biz serious enough as a biz. Its an AMAZING time, but wont be overnight

    The more you want creative control, and control of your biz side, the more I beleive we have to take charge of our own films. Its a bright future but there will be a lot of casualties. Anyway, thats only my very very humble opinion

    Looking forward to seeing your film

    Thanks again

    david ;0)

  4. Buzz McLaughlin said,
    February 21, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

    Hi David– Always love your musings on what’s transpiring. Keep it up. Your caution about starting to see middle men emerging I don’t think has to be a concern as long as filmmakers retain rights (or the critical potential moneymaking rights) and stop giving their movies away to the highest bidder. Clearly, at least to some degree, we’re going to need facilitators/aggregators to help us get to market on some of the platforms. However, the key for us as you say, is keeping ownership and control as the industry goes through its current shakedown and restructuring and to use the extensive marketing tools finally available to us to find and reach our audiences directly. As Jon
    Reiss suggests, we have to throw another producer’s hat in the ring called the Producer of Marketing and Distribution and he or she must be on board from the get go of a project and be of equal standing with all the other producers.

  5. david baker said,
    February 21, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

    Hi Buzz,

    I am sitting with a budget now but wont roll until the marketing tour budget is in place, which includes a marketing producer. The personal touch and passion for the project selling my way, but also know I need extra person pushing, using their skills. So totally agree!

    As for the middlemen. I know what you mean. I just mean in the sense that its so so important that our sales, (Emails from customers) come directly to us, and not to these other channels, groups that are setting up channels for filmmakers. The more we can get a DIRECT connection, the better.

    Those emails are more precious than the actual sale in my view. Thats my plan. Especially when you look at kickstarter and see that seems to be working because people want to be involved with films before production.

    My goal over next 3-5 years is to have 100,000-300,000 direct linked fanbase. I think we can then really see the way ahead if we can cultivate people who like our work. We could be on Netflix, Itunes, all over,, and we dont benefit enough to cover budgets

    Thats why I dont value too many facilitators/aggregators. We get no DIRECT link to our audience that way. I want the emails more than the sales.

    I know 100% where you are coming from sir. Great to connect with you.

    cheers

    David

  6. Buzz McLaughlin said,
    February 22, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    Hi Tyler– It seems there’s a crowd out there that agree with us. Everything’s shifting and it’s an exciting time to be engaging with filmmaking in all its phases. Now if we can just stay alive financially during the transition. But then I guess that’s all part of the adventure isn’t it?

    And John–There seem to be two keys to all this–keeping control (of both content and the backend) and sustainability. That’s our goal.

  7. Buzz McLaughlin said,
    February 22, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

    David– Great connecting with you as well. I like the way you’re thinking–especially capturing emails and building a large direct access fan base that will allow genuine sustainability over the long haul. Easier said than done of course. It’s a lot of work to put it mildly. But it’s that symbolic handshake across the miles (and oceans) with every fan that makes it happen, one fan at a time. So many successful businesses (yes, businesses!) start this way. So why should it be any different for us…? Frankly, this is what makes all this attractive to me–the challenge of pulling it off.

  8. Luke James said,
    February 25, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

    This is such a fab post because it’s got so much energy, positivity and can-do vibe. It oozes enthusiasm and a clear-headed business approach.

    The middle men issue will materialise, I’m sure. But what’s key, is to be ready for them. Have a clear and concise philosophy. Learn more than they do about the legal aspects, rights, business models and potential stumbles. Yes, Social Media is revolutionising the way the whole business is being run.

    I think David has a very real concern, particularly regarding sales revenue. This is why I think the word independent still has an important role; insomuch that it’s independent thinking, business strategy and philosophy of operations that will keep a safe and financially viable distance from the old models. Independent entrepreneurs.

    One of the conundrums we have is that only 50% of tweets, for example, are in English. That’s a 50% market share English-speaking films are not reaching on Twitter already. I haven’t seen figures for other SM but I’m guessing it’s going to be similar.

    Why is this a concern? For us, who are very firmly based in a global family of several nationalities and languages, it means we mustn’t get sucked into thinking that what we’re reading and discussing are the only things happening in film i.e. the big two (a misnomer) of LA and NY. This isn’t xenophobia, it’s inclusivity. Film has a global audience. Or, at least, it should do ;)

    There’s another dilemma we’re wrestling with – and it’s true of many areas of the media business. It’s that we’re not selling to each other i.e. other filmmakers. The challenge will be to become innovative regarding sales to the audience. If we’re not selling the end product, we’re not in business.

    Marketing WILL be the most essential tool for sales revenue. These are the areas filmmakers will need to be sharp as tacks about.

    The greatest thing that’s happening is that we are talking to one another – it’s vital. History tells us that revolutions have a habit of not delivering the great hope that initiated them in the first place – unless, the core principles that started them are adhered to.

    Am I being doom and gloom here? No. I’m actually fired up as hell over this issue.

    Like David, I don’t propose all the answers. What I’m seeing is so precious and exciting though, we must be damned sure we don’t let it slip through our fingers. It’ll take strength of character. The good news, is that what I’m reading and seeing online from fab people like yourselves, David and Tyler is that there’s real, genuine, passion.

    That is our strength.

  9. Buzz McLaughlin said,
    February 26, 2010 @ 11:23 am

    Hi Luke– Great thoughts. As you say, talking and sharing is so key as the fog starts to lift and the landscape before us comes ever more sharply into focus. It’s like suddenly getting glimpses of this vast vista looming in front of us dazzling in the sunlight and a path at our feet beckoning us to head off into it. So now, as you say, is the time to prepare, study, research, experiment, share, discuss, challenge, and somehow or other CONTINUE MAKING FILMS all at the same time. A full agenda, to be sure. An enormous amount of work. Lots of perserverance. And a real can do attitude. But what is fueling me and others forward are these glimpses of what the future can be for us as filmmakers and the possibilities of connecting our work with people who love and support it. And I agree this includes looking at the single global audience, not just separate regions or territories that in the old model have limited our access to the world directly, individual filmmaker to individual fan regardless of where they happen to call home. It also includes looking at other filmmakers as one niche audience, but also seeking out other niches that are unique for each particular project. It’s going to be a very interesting next five years…

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